Are Learning-Disabled Kids Tossed Aside?

May 12, 2003 -- How does a boy, once a member of gifted programs, descend through a series of disciplinary actions and suspensions, ultimately to be barred from school entirely by the age of 14?

His parents say it was because of his emerging learning disability, and rather than deal with his problems, they say his school system, like many school systems across the country, simply tossed him aside.

The boy, identified as K.S.G. to protect his identity, is one of eight learning-disabled students who are part of a class-action lawsuit filed recently against the New York City Department of Education.

It's a case that education experts and advocates for children with disabilities say is emblematic of a disturbing trend that is becoming endemic across the country as schools grapple with funding cuts, understaffing and increased pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind program to raise overall performance levels.

"New York City schools and districts regularly engage in a practice of excluding disabled children from school and denying them educational services to which they are entitled," alleges the suit filed by a group called Advocates for Children in U.S. District Court in New York.

A spokesman for the New York City Department of Education declined to comment on the suit.

In K.S.G.'s case, the suit says, he began his schooling in a program for gifted students, but when his performance started to slip and he developed disciplinary problems, he was repeatedly suspended and transferred from school to school. In just the past year, he missed more than 50 days of classes.

Instead of having him evaluated to try to find the reason for his problems — as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, as it's called — his family says school officials have tried to ban him from school altogether.

His family says that if his school had him evaluated, they would have recognized that he suffers from severe brain trauma and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as he has since been diagnosed by the New York University Child Study Center, and could have provided him with the program required by federal law.

Instead, at 14 years old he is barred from school, awaiting a hearing to try to get him back in.

"Disabled children miss weeks, months or years of school or they are moved without due process to 'alternative' schools or suspension centers where they are warehoused without legally adequate instruction," the Advocates for Children complaint says. "These practices violate the principles underlying the federal laws that were created to protect disabled children."

To Jail or the Streets

Advocates and researchers say the failure to provide educations for children with disabilities does more than harm a few kids.They say it exacts a high toll on society at large, even if removing some troubled students from class helps other children remain undistracted and focused.

There are more than 6.5 million students with disabilities in the nation's schools, and about half of them have learning disabilities, according to Jim Bradshaw of the U.S. Department of Education. He said that over the last decade the number has been rising, but that the increase has been in line with the increase in overall student population.

Researchers and advocates point to studies, including two finished recently, that find higher percentages of children with learning disabilities in the juvenile justice system than in the general population. They say that if schools were doing what federal law requires in terms of providing individual attention, they would not fall behind their peers and develop the frustration and anger that can lead kids to act up and create problems.

Once kids with learning disabilities find themselves in the juvenile justice system, there is little chance for them to get their education back on track and get started out in life on the right foot, researchers and advocates say.

"The schools end up getting rid of kids, discarding them," said Dan Mears, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute and co-author of the study "Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System: The Status of Evidence-Based Research."

"Then there are two places they can go: into the justice system or out on the streets," he said.

‘They Basically Unravel’

According to Mears' study, children and youth with disabilities have become increasingly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system as a direct result of discipline problems caused by their disability.

The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice has found the same thing, as have the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and Advocates for Children.

"Once they can't read and can't do math at the level of their classmates, when they do math and read at a second-grade level and they're 15 or 16, they basically unravel," said Elisa Hyman, director of Advocates for Children.

An educator who runs the largest special education program in Vermont said there are other factors that contribute to children acting up, but that frustration with a lack of academic progress play a role.

"I think it's reasonable to imagine that if an adolescent has fallen behind, they'd get to a point where they might not buy into the whole education thing as a positive thing for them," said Richard Smith, director of special education at the Orleans Essex North Supervisory Union.

A Dead End?

Ira Hughes, a 20-year-old New York City man, is another case of what can go wrong, but also of how it can be made right. He said he wanted to stay in school, but when he realized he was going to be in 10th grade for a third time, it stopped making sense, and he dropped out two years ago.

Hughes has severe dyslexia that the school he was attending seemed unable to deal with, he said. He had not had a teacher working with him one-on-one since junior high school, which was when his disability was finally diagnosed, and felt he had not made academic progress since then.

"It was like a dead-end thing," he said. "I felt like if it was three years, it could be four years or five years. It wouldn't matter."

So he dropped out, rather than beat his head against a wall that wasn't moving.

Hughes, who works as a security guard, is currently attending a GED program where he works one-on-one with a teacher who is helping him overcome his dyslexia, and he is on course to get his diploma.

The classes are being paid for by the New York City Department of Education, he said, "Kind of like, 'We owe you.' "

Hughes, some children's advocates would say, is lucky. Not just because now he is getting the help — at taxpayer expense — that he didn't get in school. But also because his frustration at not getting the kind of attention he felt he needed to help him learn did not lead to disciplinary problems that could have landed him in the courts, with little or no chance at an education.

A Complex Problem

While researchers believe they understand the price society pays for not educating the learning-disabled, the causes of the problem are too complex for pointing fingers in any one direction, Mears and other researchers say.

Special-education students are supposed to spend most of their time in a mainstream classroom, with short one-on-one sessions with a specially trained teacher to deal with the student's particular problem, educators who ABCNEWS spoke to said.

IDEA, enacted nearly three decades ago, requires that once students are diagnosed with a learning disability, their school has to develop an individual education plan that can be re-evaluated every year.

Such programs are extremely expensive, though, and as school districts are forced by funding cuts to reduce staff, regular classroom teachers can find themselves forced to deal more and more with students they are not trained to handle, said Dick Riley, spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers.

That can take time away from other kids.

In some cases, inadequate funding means that schools do not have sufficient facilities or personnel to implement the programs required by federal law, Mears said.

‘Wait and Fail’

Sometimes the programs work perfectly, but another difficulty for teachers and schools is simply recognizing when a child has a problem, which is why Smith said his district has implemented a program to identify children who need special education programs at an early age, trying to avoid the "wait and fail model," when schools wait until children are already performing at a drastically lower level than where their ability would indicate they should be.

"The reality is that by high school they may already be at a crisis point where they're going to be really hard to change," he said. "We think it's better to start when they're young, when we can make a positive change before they get to that crisis point. Research shows that even by the end of first grade [their performance] already has an impact on their opinion of themselves."

However, many teachers are not properly trained to recognize the warning signs of learning disabilities, so a child may already have fallen far behind others in the same age group, Mears said.

There is also federal pressure.

The mandatory testing used to measure a school's progress under No Child Left Behind can create pressure on administrators to get rid of children who are disciplinary problems, no matter why the child is acting up, and zero-tolerance policies give teachers and administrators no room for leniency if there are extenuating circumstances, said Peter Leone, a University of Maryland professor in the Department of Special Education and the director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice.

"If you run a school and you are told you're going to be judged on how kids do on these standardized tests, you're going to want your school to do as well as possible," Leone said. "There's no incentive in too many cases to keep these [learning-disabled] kids in schools."

Let Teachers Teach

Of particular concern to groups like the Maryland-based Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or CHADD, are proposed federal laws that they fear would inhibit teachers who suspect that a child might have a learning disability from suggesting to parents that they have the youngster evaluated.

One is the Child Medication Safety Act of 2003, which would bar school officials from requiring learning-disabled children to get medication as a condition for being allowed in school.

"As a condition of receiving funds under any program or activity administered by the Secretary of Education, each State shall develop and implement policies and procedures prohibiting school personnel from requiring a child to obtain a prescription for a controlled substance in schedule II under section 202(c) of the Controlled Substances Act as a condition of attending school or receiving services," the House bill, HR 1170, says in part.

They fear that the potential for schools to lose federal funding will lead instructors to avoid the issue of learning disabilities altogether.

"It's really absurd, because if a teacher is not the person who can raise those concerns, if a teacher is not the person with the mandate to raise concerns about a student's learning, who is? They're the experts, aren't they?" said one teacher with 15 years experience in special education who asked not to be identified.

"That said, I'm horrified when I hear teachers say 'That kid needs to be medicated,' though I've seen so many kids with attention deficit who do so much better when they get the medication they need," the teacher said. "I've seen so many kids who want to be good students and are bright kids but can't screw themselves down to the chair without medication."

Another concern is a proposed revision of IDEA, called the Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act of 2003. The measure would revise the requirement that a student who has been diagnosed with a learning disability be re-evaluated every year to requiring new evaluations only every three years, among other provisions such as making it easier to remove learning-disabled students in some circumstances.

Proponents of the measures say they would give parents greater control, and allow teachers to focus better on the classroom.

According to a statement released by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, regarding the IDEA revision, HR1350, is that the changes will lead to "reducing the number of students who are misidentified or overrepresented in special education" and allow teachers "to teach, not fill out paperwork."

A Success Story

Advocates fear that if it becomes harder under law to deal with children in special education, more will fall through the cracks.

Evelyn Green, an administrator with the Chicago public schools' Office of Early Childhood Development and the president of CHADD, said she has seen such "discarded" children among the gangs on the streets of Chicago.

"What's really clear is that some of these kids, particularly the leaders, are really bright, but a lot of them are angry and frustrated," Green said. "It's evident having a conversation with them that they are very bright, but maybe they can't read because they're dyslexic. The frustration with their learning disability leads to them acting out, taking it out on society."

She said her own son could have gone that way, because of his attention deficit disorder.

"I think about the number of times that he got in trouble directly as a result of his AD/HD," she said. "If he hadn't had the protections in place, I hate to think where he might be. He's graduating with honors with a college scholarship. I know that wouldn't have happened without a positive behavior plan."

Kids at Risk

Mears' study, based on examination of data from numerous sources, including individual districts as well as from city- and statewide studies, found that children who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities make up roughly 20 percent of the population in the juvenile justice system, while they are just 10 percent of the overall population.

The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice solicited information from departments of education, juvenile courts and detention centers and, from the responses, estimated that at least 34 percent of the children in the juvenile justice system had been enrolled in special education at some point in their school.

"Actually, we think that's low," said Leone, the NCEDJJ director. "A handful of states said that more than half the kids in long-term juvenile detention had been enrolled in special education. We don't think that's an aberration."

The disparity in the numbers may be due in part to inaccuracies in record keeping, or failure of the youngster's family or school to report on the child's education history.

"I think it's a problem that we're becoming more and more aware of," Leone said. "I think there's a growing awareness in a larger community."